At first, the ADL’s Entertainment Industry dinner honoring Relativity Media founder Ryan Kavanaugh did not augur either acclaim or good fortune. The banquet hall was smaller than in years past, the crowd a little bit sparser. It was not at all obvious at the beginning of the night if Kavanaugh’s philanthropic influence would even come close to matching his influence at the box office.
“Well, you know, this isn’t Spielberg,” one attendee whispered over whitefish with artichokes, referring of course, to the ADL’s 2009 honoree who attracted more than a thousand people to the annual dinner and solicited more than $2 million in donations.
But the night – and the chosen honoree—was young.
Electus founder and CEO Ben Silverman, best known as executive producer of “The Office” and a former co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, kicked off as the evening’s emcee. In his opening monologue, Silverman told the crowd of 300 that earlier that day, he had celebrated his son’s bris, the Jewish rite of passage that came under fire earlier this summer when an anti-circumcision ballot initiative was proposed in San Francisco. “It’s the great work of the ADL that made this possible,” he said of that morning’s politically restored ritual. “It’s not only that the ADL fought this, but they got it to become law that [circumcision] could never be banned.” (Assembly Bill 768 prohibiting cities and counties from banning male circumcision was introduced by Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) and passed the state legislature in late August; it was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in early October).
Next Silverman introduced a video in which Kavanaugh’s industry colleagues – among them Dreamworks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Tom Sherak and the singer Michael Buble—saluted him. Sherak called Kavanaugh “as generous a human being as I’ve ever met in my life…the ultimate mensch” – high praise for the glamour-loving, vintage-car collecting hotshot.
“I’ve never had a standing ovation before,” Kavanaugh said with a boyish smile when he took the stage. Besuited in black and pairing a tie with his signature sneakers, Kavanaugh played the boy in king’s clothing – an image reinforced by his spiky red hair, doubly-lined chin and young-looking face.
“People always say to me, ‘Ryan Kavanaugh? Red hair? But I’m here to assure you I’m Jewish – on both sides, mother and father,” he said. “So until my mother admits an affair with the milkman – I’m a Jew.”
His long-winded but heartfelt speech made that clear: Kavanaugh has two grandparents who were Holocaust survivors; he talked about sitting in shul on Yom Kippur; he mentioned his rabbi, Steve Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and even talked some Torah, telling the story of Soddom and Gemorrah; he talked about the Israeli-Palestinian prisoner exchange deal designed to rescue Gilad Shalit; he talked about intermarriage and assimilation and, in an admonishing tone, the fact that Jewish couples are not having enough Jewish children.
And then he brought it all back to Tikkun Olam: “As those of us who sat in temple on Yom Kippur know, you come away with one underlying goal: to help others in need.” And even though Jews come away from the holidays with good intentions, he said, “we don’t do our most.” His big Yom Kippur takeaway this year, which came straight from his rabbi’s sermon was: “Do not do to another what is hurtful to you.”
“That’s exactly what the ADL stands for,” he said. “That’s what we need in this world.”
“The Jews in this room are the luckiest Jews in the history of Judaism,” he said. “And in Hollywood, we get to hold a megaphone to the entire world—our voices travel the entire world through film, television and news – what do we do with that power?”
“It has to become our job to stop oppression,” he continued. “If you believe in The Golden Rule, it is not a choice. You must help.”
Then Kavanaugh stunned his colleagues by declaring a little fundraising auction. His goal: to increase $430,000 in pledges to match last year’s total of half a million dollars. He promised to match every penny that came in – then he started calling out names…
Ben Silverman was the first to raise his hand. “I don’t want to discourage others from donating,” but “I’m happy to throw in another $25,000,” Silverman said. Lucky one.
Next Kavanaugh called out for $10,000, then $5,000, all the way down to $100.
By the end of the night, the event raised nearly $600,000 – which proves that first impressions are rarely lasting ones—and that sometimes, it pays to sit through rubber-chicken dinners because something golden awaits.